writer bill minutaglio is the author or co-author of seven books. His writing has appeared in The New York Times, Esquire, Newsweek, Texas Monthly, The Los Angeles Times, Outside, and numerous other publications. Esquire said that he created one of the greatest tales of survival ever written. The Texas Observer said that his book, City on Fire, was one of the finest books ever written about Texas. Minutaglio’s books have been reprinted in China, optioned by Tom Cruise, and cited in several editions of The Best American Sports Writing. Minutaglio has also been recognized by The National Conference of Christians and Jews for fighting prejudice and The National Association of Black Journalists for covering poverty in America.
Front Porch: In the introduction to your book, In Search of the Blues, you describe discovering a book of Langston Hughes’s poetry as a young man, which you attribute, in part, to sparking your enduring interest in the culture and experience of African Americans. This interest became the foundation for your journalism career, and you’ve written extensively about black athletes, musicians, and community leaders. You’ve also written about other subjects as wide-ranging as the Texas City disaster of 1947, the Bush family, the journalist Molly Ivins, and the former U.S. Attorney General Alberto Gonzales. As a writer, do you find that your subjects choose you, or do you choose your subjects?
Bill Minutaglio: That’s a great, nuanced question. There are things I’ve wanted to write, that appealed to me more than others. I try to write narrative nonfiction, what some folks call literary journalism. I don’t know if I succeed at it. But I like to think that I at least try to tell stories. So, sometimes there are stories that choose me, because they are like drifters with old suitcases at the side of the highway, insisting I offer them a ride. Sometimes I’ve chosen the story because, well, I needed to make a living. I think nonfiction writers make many more compromises in their choice of work—they sometimes are not as liberated, or as courageous, as people producing fiction. That’s probably a simplistic observation. But I’ve certainly decided not to be chosen—I’ve had people call and insist I write about famous people, about famous events. And for different reasons, I demurred. I guess I would say, and this sounds sanctimonious, that however the story came to me—either it chose me, or I chose it—I have chosen to write the stories in many of the same ways. If I have a style, I’ve tried to stay true to it.
FP: In the past, a clearer distinction seems to have existed between “literary” writers and journalists. However, there is an increasing preference among readers for factual narratives, and your own writing is characterized by rich prose and strong narrative tendencies. Do you consider yourself to be a journalist or a writer of creative nonfiction? And what, in your opinion, is the difference?
BM: All journalism should be creative, inventive. That can apply to either the reporting or the writing. The process of accumulating facts should be creative, nimble. The presentation of those facts, in written form, should be creative, nimble, inviting. There are extraordinary examples of “literary journalism” that emerged well before the term became popular. Look at the poignant wartime memoirs from decades, even centuries ago. I don’t know if John Hersey was truly popularly known at the apex of his career as a “literary journalist,” but his “Hiroshima” is a masterpiece of that genre. My sense is that the term emerged as a more prevalent one in the 1960s, with Tom Wolfe, Gay Talese, and even Norman Mailer. As for me, I’m just a hack who preferred telling stories, preferred packaging his facts in a plot, and preferred to sometimes raise more questions in his stories. Some brilliant journalists prefer a linear exposition of the news, the facts. Some don’t like to tell stories—with all the usual literary conceits like foreshadowing, pacing, dialogue, and even monologue. Some journalists believe their stories should never raise more questions—they would maintain that doing that breaks one of journalism’s cardinal rules. But, I guess I far prefer toying with the notions of ambivalence, uncertainty, personal compromises in my stories—the general idea that things are not what they seem, people are not who they say or believe they are. That life is lived in a gray zone instead of a purely black-and-white, easily defined, zone. Some of that, I’ve been told, runs counter to a standardized form of journalism. I don’t know if this is telling or not, but when I was a cub reporter—I had just moved from Manhattan to Abilene, Texas—I talked my editors at The Abilene Reporter-News into running some of my short stories. Fiction. And someone wrote to the paper saying that they thought a good newspaper should always include fiction! That seems like something that the graybeards in the ivory towers can debate for a long time, no?
FP: It seems like it would be very easy in the kind of writing that you do to accidentally include inaccurate literary embellishments—the merging of dates, for instance, or the weather on the morning of a specific event. How do you balance the art of your writing with a strict adherence to fact, and how much do you worry about it?
BM: I worry about it a lot. I go to a house of worship and pray about it—literally. I happen to think that, in Texas, there is a great culture of mythology-as-journalism—that there are editors and writers, many of them not from Texas, who actually loathe the state so much that they think it a malleable playground. They have spent years “inventing” this idealized, mythologized, version of Texas. And it often entails one big, fat, celebration of people in power—and a perpetuating of stereotypes. Some editors get drunk with this notion that they, and only they, can capture the Texas Zeitgeist. They end up “inventing” their own “Texas.” It’s amazing, really, because they simply don’t practice journalism—they’re actually closer to huckster advertising and shameless public relations and, well, old-fashioned, bullshit salesmanship. So, I tend to believe you have to stay clear of that and to tell stories that are less obvious, more uncomfortable. And that means writing about poverty, race, class, life ‘on the other side of the tracks.’
The great writer David Maraniss once said that journalists are often not afforded the one thing they need the most—the time to think. And I try to think, a lot, about whether I have spent the right amount of time on the writing, the reporting. I often ask my students: How do you know when your story is done? How do you know when you have done enough reporting? Can that be quantified? I write quickly, by some standards. I can write 10,000 words in a day if I need to. I write in fits and spasms. I don’t know why. It’s just what I do—and it’s probably some version of the old saw about deadlines sharpening the mind. But I try to only write after I have done all the reporting I can reasonably do. The writing comes easier if you have faith in the facts at hand.
Without question, there is a clear and present danger if you’re doing ‘re-creation’ in your narrative writing. You are writing as if you are a witness to events you, in fact, never saw. How is that magic act done? How did John Hersey know what happened to people in Hiroshima? How did Gay Talese recreate scenes? David Halberstam? How did Sebastian Junger know what really happened in “The Perfect Storm”? How does Michael Lewis do his re-creations? They have, I think, a lot of mental scar tissue—from thinking, worry, about the question you raise.
FP: How do you maintain your momentum and enthusiasm for a project when faced with years of necessary research?
BM: That’s difficult for me, because I like to move on to other things. I have had about twenty jobs in my life. I ran the night shift, by myself, at a gas station/car repair joint in New York when I was just 15; I was a “window dresser” in Manhattan (dressing mannequins and making pants and shirts appear to fly, in little mom-and-pop clothing stores); I was a caretaker for an elderly, homebound professional storyteller; I delivered free government doughnuts to poor children in Harlem; I installed Christmas decorations in big department stores in Manhattan; I was an intern at The United Nations. And on and on. I worked full-time for four newspapers and three magazines. I’ve freelanced for at least 50 different publications. I used to think I had a hard time holding a job, but I think I just liked moving on. Working on an unauthorized biography of George W. Bush seemed to take several lifetimes. Working on my book about the hidden Texas City Disaster seemed to go by so quickly. In fact, they both took the exact same number of years to do. So, the momentum and enthusiasm ebbs and flows, depending on the project. In the end, I often write to live, to feed my family. I’m not an artist—my wife is. She is a supremely talented dancer and choreographer, one of the most amazing artists I know. I’m not that. I’m a scribbler. And I’ve been damned lucky—especially at moments when heartless editors I’ve worked for were trying to throw me under a bus—to have my books to fall back on, to pay me, in fact, more than I was getting at some newspapers where I worked. So, I view my “literary journalism” as a way to put food on the table. And, yes, to indulge some small part of me that wants to dip a toe into something more creative than the boxes some editors have wanted to put me in.
You know, I learned a valuable lesson from my father. He was part of an Italian immigrant family that came to the United States in the first decade of the 20th Century, that endured horrible prejudice, and that then moved back to Italy. He eventually returned to the U. S. after Mussolini tried to conscript him into the ranks of the fascists, and he became a printer. He worked for forty years in the old-school ranks of printers—handling bars of hot lead, working in noisy, cluttered printing plants in the bowels of Manhattan. And he rarely complained, even though he spent decades on the night shift and didn’t come home until 3 a. m. He had no time for melancholy. I learned from him that you work until your work is done. He was, I only later realized, a great journalist—because he was quite skeptical of people in power. And, it turned out, he had every reason to be that way. When I was real young, he used to talk about “the American people”—that kind of awareness, that sense of separation, is something that has always, always guided my work. It has a lot to do with what I like to write about and how I like to write. It is about being in the moment, but being separate from it at the same time. Being informed by history, context, things you can’t really see in front of you.
FP: A problem faced by many writers whose work requires heavy research is that, in the course of gathering information, it’s easy to go down a so-called rabbit trail—chasing fascinating information that may, finally, be only tangentially related to the subject. How much of your research material do you use, and how much of it finally proves to be irrelevant to the story you write?
BM: That’s a good, and funny, question because some people who read my work say that I can veer off of my narrative, take these detours, these flights of fancy, and start riffing on things that are not immediately tied to the subject at hand. Yikes. I like to call that the “free jazz” moment in my work, but hopefully, sooner or later, I will return to the melody that started the song. Maybe what I need is a swift slap to the head—or an editor—to bring me to my senses.
So, imagine doing that kind of riffing when writing about a politician, especially George W. Bush? When I was writing about him, I decided to write my first chapter in this staccato way, this skittering fashion—because I wanted the chapter to be written in the same style in which I perceived his personality to be—antsy, flitting, mobile. Some reviewers loved it. Some absolutely loathed it. They wanted more linear stuff.
And then, as I was doing research into him, there were countless rumors about Bush. A very famous media figure called me one day to tell me a rumor about Bush that was rather shocking. I had an investigative reporter from The New York Times call me 12 years ago and tell me she had interviewed people who claimed they had done something illegal with Bush but would not go on the record about it. I had a big name attorney in the Midland-Odessa region tell me something similar. And on and on and on. I could have written a whole chapter with luridly detailed rumors—and I had people urging me to do that, in order to boost book sales! And so, yes, there were all these rabbit holes. Everywhere. Writing about political figures becomes a political act in itself, and politics is absolutely filled with some oily, polarizing people, the kind of people who want to steer you in the wrong direction. And I would waste a lot of time because people were lying to me, misdirecting me—or, in one classic case, insisting on trying to come to my home office to “look” through my files. Pretty incredible. There was a story in The Washington Post that more or less left a reader with the impression that some political types had to have been privy to my research, my phone calls, as I was working on my book about Bush. I have no clue if any of this was credible, this intimation that my phones were tapped.
I am skeptical of anyone in charge, in power. And that, in fact, is what a journalist’s role is. We are professional skeptics, duty-bound to view the people in power with some critical thinking. So, I would be very skeptical of the blind leads, the false leads, the rabbit holes. And, yes, of course I would peek my head into each and every one of them; but I often quickly learned that they were the inventions of some rabid, polarizing, misguided soul. And I only wrote what could be confirmed.
FP: Do you begin writing while you are still in the research phase of a novel or other project, or do you gather most of the information you need before you begin your first draft?
BM: I try to gather as much information as I can before I write. I like putting my work in binders and folders, clearly labeled and in some sort of chronological order. I want to have most of my final writing done in a narrative fashion, a chronologically unfolding pattern; so I try to remind myself to put my research in a timeline. I talked with the great writer Bill Brands about this once. He said he doesn’t like to begin by reading anything else written about the person he might be writing about—he likes to begin by reading everything written by the person he is writing about. I told him I like to read everything everyone else has ever written about the person, or issue, I am writing about. I call it “the opus.” As an example, when I was writing about George W. Bush, I tried to find and print out every article that had ever been written about him. This was in 1998, before he was president, so the task was more manageable. That said, it was still a bear. And I created this so-called “opus”—dozens and dozens of thick binders. I have hundreds of files, dozens of fat boxes, of material. Major universities, and even the George W. Bush Library, have expressed interest in my “opus.” For me, doing it the way I do it just makes the writing so much easier. Of course, there is the attendant problem of leaving so much behind on the cutting room floor.
FP: In a 2006 interview with NPR’s Terry Gross about your biography of Alberto Gonzales, you reveal that Gonzales declined your repeated requests for an interview. What were the particular challenges of writing a biography of a living person with whom you were not permitted to speak?
BM: It’s obviously a problem, especially if you want to make your stories, your attempts at a narrative, more intimately detailed, more personal, more introspective. Gonzales, by nature, is quiet. I was told he had stopped sending emails some years ago, perhaps for privacy. So it was difficult, because the bar is now set higher—you have to rely on second-hand stories. You have to parse his public statements, speeches, memos. And you have to really, really consider the context—the history, the landscape, the background—of everyone in the story. In a way, not having the cooperation of someone is liberating—it forces, you to think even more about where that person was raised, what environment they sprung from, and what larger, societal forces shaped them. So you must lean on the sweep, the scope, the Big Picture, material—the kind of material that I think happens to make for a richer, and arguably more accurate, work.
—E. D. Watson